Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Glass Key (1942)

THE GLASS KEY       C                    
USA  (85 mi)  1942  d:  Stuart Heisler

You’re built well, got a pretty face, nice manners, but I wouldn’t trust you outside of this room.      —Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd)

Not to be confused with the earlier version of this film The Glass Key (1935) starring George Raft and Edward Arnold, adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel, considered one of his best, this remake stars Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, the second of four films together, adding a love interest that was not in the earlier version.  Made immediately after THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), but prior to the release, where Paramount saw how well the diminutive pair worked together, as Ladd was all of 5 feet and 5 inches tall, while Lake was just under 5 feet, making them perfect screen partners.  The secret to their screen chemistry, however, is the dialogue, as it’s smart and sassy, giving Lake a chance to exert a fierce independent streak, making her an ideal femme fatale, quite demure and emotionally distant in her calculatingly cold and indifferent way.  Directed by Stuart Heisler, who also directed the politically subversive Among the Living (1941), this remake is often thought to be the superior of the two versions, where the crisp dialogue might be sharper and quick-witted, and the extension of Lake’s role in the story doesn’t hurt, but George Raft is better as the slick and street smart Ed Beaumont, a man of dubious character, whose conversion from gambler to political handler is more believable.  Ladd appears kind of wooden for much of the film, especially when he’s working the right side of the law, as he’s more animated playing a tough, wise guy who knows how to talk to and handle small time hoods.  He’s at home in their seedy element, where some of the best scenes in the film are shared with William Bendix as Jeff, a near psychotic hit man who loves to smash people’s faces for a living, used as a bodyguard for gambling operator Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia).  No one can beat the largesse of Edward Arnold’s earlier performance either as Paul Madvig, a corrupt political boss trying to go straight.  He and Raft were excellent partners who seemed to be speaking the same language, as if they came out of the gutter together.  Ladd as Beaumont and Brian Donlevy as Madvig, who actually had top billing in the picture, act like they barely know each other, as Madvig exerts much less influence, so one wonders why Beaumont would be so loyal.

Perhaps more faithful to the book, it’s a complex story of political corruption and murder, where Madvig and Beaumont come from a crooked past supporting prostitution and gambling interests.  So when party boss Madvig comes out in support of a reform candidate for Governor, society millionaire Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), believing he’ll be rewarded with a key to the Governor’s mansion, his fashion-minded daughter Janet (Lake) is the real object of his desire, making her his fiancé, so he starts shutting down gangster run gambling houses, like Nick Varna’s, which turns heads, and infuriorates Varna who vows revenge.  When Henry’s troubled son is murdered, Madvig is quickly implicated, fueled by rumors fed to the newspaper by Varna.  But when Madvig doesn’t seem very concerned, Beaumont is initially puzzled, as he doesn’t trust Henry and thinks Janet is playing his boss for a chump, thinking both will be dumped after the election.  Pretending to get in a fight with Madvig and leave town, Beaumont has another reason to stick around, as Veronica Lake captures his interest as well The Glass Key Film Noir Veronica Lake 1942 YouTube (2:33).  When he starts sticking his nose in Varna’s affairs, Beaumont runs into Jeff, who’s just waiting to get his mitts on him, giving him one of the more brutal beatings that’s still painful to watch more than a half century later, especially when one learns afterwards that Bendix accidentally knocked Ladd out, catching him with a haymaker to the jaw, which is the take used in the film.  Bendix was so remorseful afterwards that he and Ladd became excellent friends, working together again in The Blue Dahlia (1946), another tour-de-force performance from Bendix.  Wally Westmore’s makeup department deserves special recognition, as Ladd really looked like he was on the wrong end of a crudely savage beating, yet he cleverly manages to escape.

After a hospital recovery, Beaumont engineers what is perhaps the most morally despicable scene in the film, but it starts out like one of those Inspector Hercule Poirot scenes in an Agatha Christie novel, where he gathers all the usual suspects in a room and figures it all out.  Beaumont reveals that Varda owns the mortgage to the newspaper, so the publisher, Arthur Loft as Clyde Matthews, is forced to print all the rumor and gossip as actual news, which the publisher’s wife Eloise (Margaret Hayes) finds a detestable development, especially the realization that they’re broke.  When she and Beaumont cozy up to one another in plain view of the husband, brazenly kissing on the sofa, Beaumont literally shames the publisher into taking his own life.  Beaumont’s actions here are pretty disgusting, where his heartless and amoral reaction may be suitable for film noir, but hardly befitting anyone’s idea of a hero, which is how he’s projected in the film.  Again, George Raft projects having lived among sewer rats so much better than Ladd who always looks like he’s afraid to get his shoes scuffed, as he just doesn’t exhibit the needed range of believability.  There’s a fascinating appearance by Lillian Randolph, Annie the housekeeper in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, whose daughter Barbara sang with the Platters and was initially considered as a replacement member of the Supremes), seen here as a Bessie Smith style nightclub blues singer where the publisher’s widow is seen drowning her sorrows.  Bendix, though, steals the movie when Ladd comes to get revenge, shown here with his mouth flapping and his hair flying, continually calling Beaumont a heel, He's A Heel - The Glass Key (1942) YouTube (3:34).  Ladd doesn’t stop there, urging the spineless District Attorney to bring charges against Janet Henry, a woman he supposedly loves, to root out the real killer.  The film barely touches on the corrupt political angle, using it instead as background information for the budding romance between the two leads, where each projects an unscrupulous nature that all but defines them as untrustworthy.  By the end, do we really believe that they’re going to go straight?  She’s accustomed to the finer things in life, having been spoiled and raised with servants in an immense mansion.  Beaumont’s going to need plenty of bucks to keep her happy, where life on the shady side of the street is often more financially rewarding.   

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